In one of the most shocking developments yet in the 2004 Stanford Football season, fifth-year senior free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe is expected to start tonight's game at Washington State on the sideline. There is no injury impetus for the move, which is instead a response by the coaching staff to Atogwe's recent play. The senior safety is an incredible talent, but last week in the Notre Dame game he played outside the defense too many times, losing his assignments and costing the Card on several big plays.
The coaches are upset enough with Atogwe's freelancing mistakes that they took this week to send him a message. Throughout the week of practices, the senior stood on the sideline whenever the first team offense took the field. Sophomore Brandon Harrison slid over to the vacated free safety position from his normal strong safety spot, while redshirt sophomore Trevor Hooper took the lead at the other spot. It is expected that when the starting lineups are announced tonight and the Cardinal defense first takes the field, it will be Hooper and Harrison that man the safety positions. It would be the first game Atogwe has not started at Stanford since his redshirt freshman year in 2001, breaking up a 27-game starting streak.
I do not expect this to be a game-long benching, by any stretch, however. Atogwe did rotate into the first team defense during practices, as the three safeties shared time. In contrast, when fifth-year senior linebacker David Bergeron was suspended for the entirety of the USC game last month, he never took a repetition with the first or second team defensive units in practice. Atogwe will play and could play a lot tonight, but the shot sent across the bow is taking away his starting privilege .
It should also be noted that the senior safety is one of two permanent team captains this year. By the staff dealing out this punishment to Atogwe, they are sending a message not just to him, but to all players on the defense and on the team that no starting job is safe. There are players at most positions who competitively are close to the level of the starter ahead of them, and those who don't perform can be quickly replaced. It is a bold move to make with a popular and talented player. We will see tonight how well it works for a defense that will be challenged by an aggressive Washington State offense.
To that end, you should watch for some different looks tonight from the Cardinal defense. The Cougars like to spread the field with three, four or even five wide receivers. Their official depth chart, in fact, depicts three wideouts. You should expect Stanford to consequently play a lot of defensive backs in this game. The Card have employed their nickel defense plenty through the first five games when teams have split out three receivers, but the four-wide and five-wide sets characteristic of the Washington State offense will elicit a more rare response. Stanford will use its dime defense at times tonight, which pulls a sixth defensive back onto the field to replace a linebacker.
The nickel defense takes the "Mike" inside linebacker off the field, who is typically the largest of your linebackers and predisposed to run-stopping. Bergeron is Stanford's starting "Mike" linebacker, and you have seen him run the sideline in long-yardage passing downs where opposing offenses load an extra wideout. His replacement in the nickel defense is a third cornerback, which puts Stanley Wilson, Leigh Torrence and T.J. Rushing all on the field together in coverage. When I have watched practices during preseason camp and during fall workouts, the dime package has pulled another linebacker and put Hooper on the field as the sixth defensive back. This week, there was far more work with the dime defense than I have seen at any time all year, and the "dime back" was redshirt sophomore David Lofton. You may remember that Lofton switched just this fall from offense over to defense, and he has the ability to play both safety spots. His work has come with the second team during practices, but he has not yet seen meaningful game action on defense. His role on special teams has increased, but this Washington State game is likely to be his first spotlight opportunity on defense. After playing the position just weeks on The Farm, it is a big vote of confidence that the Cardinal coaching staff are putting him in this position. His size and speed give him an attractive range at safety, though his decision-making and execution will be tested for the first time tonight.
There is another personnel implication to watch tonight given Stanford's anticipation of the Washington State spread offense. You saw last week against Notre Dame how redshirt junior inside linebacker Michael Craven was leveraged in passing situations. For third downs with long yardage to go, Craven came off the sideline along with the "nickel back" to substitute for two linebackers. That still put three linebackers and five defensive backs on the field, which is typical for Stanford's nickel defense. But Craven brings more speed and athleticism than any other linebacker on the Cardinal roster. He has not seen more time on defense this year because the coaches do not yet trust him to carry out his assignments and responsibilities at a level where his gifts would outweigh his mistakes. However, in these pass-rushing specialty situations, there are fewer reads and responsibilities for him to make. With less likelihood that the offense will run the ball, he has ostensibly half the thinking to do on the field.
"In the 'robber' [nickel] defense, we expect the pass and not the run," Craven explains. "I have different reads than if I was in the base defense. Sometimes I drop; sometimes I blitz. Sometimes I'm in man coverage, but most of the time I'm blitzing."
The gifted athlete made his presence felt right away last Saturday in South Bend as he rocketed toward Irish quarterback Brady Quinn on a delayed blitz on the first third down of the game. Craven arrived at the quarterback in a flash, just a split second after defensive end Julian Jenkins hit him. Jenkins was officially credited with the sack, but the play was emblematic of Craven's impact. Film review put a smile on the La Quinta (Calif.) native's face, and similarly pleased the Cardinal coaches.
"It was a plus for us," says head coach Buddy Teevens on the redshirt junior's performance. "He's a very athletic individual. He continues to progress and has been invaluable on special teams. We expect to get him more playing time."
"I made one play and didn't blow any assignments," Craven reports. "I was out there for 12 plays, to be exact. There are a lot of guys on the team, and not all of them get to play. I want to win and I'm a good teammate, but I'm also a competitor. I want to compete and play more than I have played this year."
The athletic inside linebacker admits that his propensity for leaving the defense and making mistakes has been his bugaboo. To that end, he is proud of his clean performance against Notre Dame.
"Don't freelance. That's exactly why I haven't played more. I think I proved last week to the coaches that I'm listening and known what to do for the defense," Craven proclaims. "I think my chances to continue that are going to increase this week."
Craven says that his snaps may be increased tonight not just because there should be more passing downs than Stanford faced last week. He talks of a slightly different and expanded role he will take within the defense. Without giving away formations or predetermined conditions, we will will await the nationally broadcast (Fox Sports Net, 7:15 PM Pacific) game this evening to see how the Cardinal coaches unsheathe this weapon.
- Redshirt junior quarterback Kyle Matter has made enough progress in the rehabilitation and healing of his shoulder that for the first time this year he made some throws in practice this week. Matter was held to shorter passes, and his arm strength was clearly lacking. But it is at least a great symbolic step forward after Matter has not thrown with the team since the fall of 2003. He had off-season shoulder surgery last winter and missed all of spring practices. He was expected to be fully recovered in time to compete with Trent Edwards at the top of the quarterback depth chart, but the shoulder has not progressed at all as was expected. With five more weeks still remaining in the regular season, it is possible that Matter could gain enough arm strength to be in a competitive position again. But it is anybody's guess what temporal trajectory his shoulder's healing will take.
- The offense could have taken control of last week's game right off the bat had they converted with the ball inside the Notre Dame 10-yardline in the first quarter for touchdowns rather than field goals. The redzone stalls appeared to have been a focus this week in practices. On Thursday in particular, a good deal of time was spent with the first and second team offenses running repetition after repetition of their offensive plays inside the five-yardline.
- Redshirt junior running back J.R. Lemon was the other missing piece to the offensive puzzle in South Bend, as he injured his knee late in the first quarter. He did not appear in the second quarter, and when he returned for action in the second half with the knee treated and wrapped, he was wholly ineffective. Lemon rushed for just eight total yards on six carries in the final two quarters, and the absent running game changed the entire complexion of the contest. The tailback leads the team in rushing yards (377), yards per carry (6.1), touchdowns (5) and all-purpose yards per game (86.4). He is the unquestioned top performer among Stanford's running backs this year, and his health thus is one of the great questions heading into tonight's game. Lemon told The Bootleg at the end of this week's practices that his knee was "90 percent." He participated fully in practices, and in fact did so without any wrap or brace. The injury was self-reported by Lemon immediately after the Notre Dame game as a strain, but it was clarified this week by Buddy Teevens as a bruise.
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